THE ARTIST/MARIAN GOODMAN GALLERY, NYC/PARIS
Over the past several years, the Whitney Museum has organized with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, a sequence of important retrospectives of artists who emerged in New York City in the mid- to late ’60s, just after the Minimalists. Robert Smithson was the subject of the first exhibition, in 2005; then Gordon Matta-Clark and Lawrence Weiner had shows in 2007. Each was in its own way a triumph. Arguably, this generation of artists born around 1940 (and of course they flourished not only in New York) represents at once the culmination and the exhaustion of a certain Modernist project as it had played out over the preceding century. In their work, formal reflexivity and self-critique reached degree zero; in an ultimate turn of the screw of abstraction, the art object dissolved into language and action.
Now it’s the turn of another of their cohort, Dan Graham. The choice must have seemed a no-brainer. After all, Graham is something of a cult figure, especially among younger artists, perhaps because he has dabbled in many of the major artistic issues of the time, above all the relation of the artwork to its social context. And he seems to have garnered an ineffable aura of cool, in part because of his association with rock music–writing and making videos about it but also palling around with musicians (the Whitney catalog includes an interview with Graham by Kim Gordon, the Sonic Youth bassist who is widely recognized as one of the coolest people in the universe). Graham is, as the exhibition’s co-curator Bennett Simpson writes (in an essay focusing precisely on Graham and music), something of an artist’s artist.
So I can’t help but feel that I’m about to blackball myself from some invisible club when I say that, in contrast to the three shows I mentioned before, each of which I walked out of having discovered an even richer and deeper oeuvre than the one I already admired, “Dan Graham: Beyond” left me disillusioned. (Curated by Simpson and Chrissie Iles, the show is on view at the Whitney through October 11, after which it travels to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, October 31-January 31.) Graham’s work turns out to be mostly a period piece–the product of a brilliant dilettante who was, at least for a while, so in step with the zeitgeist that he sometimes appeared to be a stride or two ahead of it, an illusion that lent his work the appearance of an originality or strength it lacked. If you read the interviews with Graham in the exhibition catalog, it’s fascinating how often he still speaks not on behalf of himself but of the group to which he felt he belonged, articulating a shared sensibility expressed as a series of likes and dislikes. “We hated Duchamp.” “We loved Speer at that time”–referring to the Nazi architect. “We were all very influenced by Jean-Luc Godard.” “We were very influenced by the French new novel, and the idea was not to use metaphor.” Much of the exhibition feels like an anthology of illustrations of what a certain “we” found interesting in the late ’60s.